Coma

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Shortlisted   —British Book Design and Production Awards2021

Longlisted   —LDComics Award2019

Shortlisted   —First Graphic Novel Competition2018

Shortlisted   —The Arts Foundation Futures Awards, Comics Category2020

A beautifully painted graphic novel and a visual diary recording the monstrous and mundane, COMA is an astonishing record of one woman’s will to survive against the overwhelming pull of the deep.

In May 2013 Zara Slattery’s persistent sore throat turned into a deadly bacterial infection, after the paracetamol and ice pack prescribed by her GP failed to work. The world of Zara’s 15-day drug-induced coma, which she describes as ‘being trapped in a nightmare state that you can’t wake up from’ is rendered as a full-colour fantasy, with mythological creatures appearing out of nowhere as she battles to protect her three children against the forces of evil that threaten to engulf her. Meanwhile, her husband Dan tries to keep family life going as he faces the most difficult task of all: preparing the children for the likely loss of their mother. His diary, and that of the nurses in the Intensive Care Unit, who kept of record of Zara’s illness, interweave to make a heartbreaking graphic memoir.

Coma was shortlisted for the Myriad First Graphic Novel Competition 2018, the Arts Foundation Futures Awards 2020 and longlisted for the LDComics Awards 2019.

Boudicca Fox-Leonard, The Telegraph

13 June 2021
A bacterial infection cost artist Zara Slattery her leg – and almost her life. She explains how her new book helped exorcise the experience.
It was a hug in hospital with her dying mother that led to a sore throat that niggled for weeks that ultimately developed into something devastating. By the time artist and mum-of-three Zara Slattery found her way to a hospital bed, a bruise on her bum from bumping into a table had developed into a deadly bacterial infection.

Her husband Dan thought she'd be in and out in a few days. The enormity of her condition only hit home when she was put into an induced coma in intensive care while doctors struggled to save her.

They did, but it was at the cost of her right leg.

Almost eight years on from her 15 days in an induced coma, six weeks in intensive care and three and a half months in hospital, and Slattery, now 50, says ‘I’m still a newbie at being an amputee.’

One can hardly imagine how you would ever grow used to such a change in circumstances. Her amputation was the result of necrotising myositis caused by a hospital bug. It encompassed her right glute, meaning  there’s little peace in sitting or standing.

She lives with the discomfort of her new body; walking on crutches and dealing with the daily reality of disability access issues, the loss of independence which means she yearns to go sea swimming and the change in how society views her. ‘People tend to talk loudly to me now. They ignore me in restaurants but look at me in the street,’ she tells me over Zoom, from her home in Brighton, where she’s bolstered up on rugs and sheepskins.

Her struggle has been as much mental as physical. Overcoming enormous anger at her misfortune; the classic signs of sepsis (flu-like symptoms, off the scale pain), fever and a rash) that were missed by her GP, who told her she was a once-in-30-years kind of occurence.

An artist and graphic novelist, drawing has always been Slattery’s way of making sense of the world and it was only time before she turned her pencils towards the experience to tell her own story. Not so much in her own words, but in her own artistic style.

The result is Coma, a graphic novel that focuses on the 15 days where she was blacked out. Except her interior narrative was anything but dormant. Slattery suffered monstrous hallucinations that she compares to her own Purgatorio, full of phantoms and menaces, medieval in quality.

The result is a remarkable insight into the mind of a body fighting for survival.

Meanwhile, her husband and three children, then seven, ten, and 12, were around her bedside. Slattery could sense the emotion in the room and it only fuelled her imagination as she fought her inner demons.

While her memory suffered after she woke up, those images never faded.

Drawing them has helped to smooth out the tangle of dreams. The scary face that loomed over her, a clock on the wall of her hospital ward. The skulls that surrounded her, nurses. The ninjas that somersaulted into her subconscious she can now see were the surgeons.

A year after her trauma, Slattery read the diary that Dan kept throughout her coma. Endless supplies of spaghetti Bolognese from the neighbours, splitting his trousers, the car breaking down, taking their son Teddy to buy a new pair of trainers, and wondering how on earth he would be able to prepare his children for the loss of their mother.

These two narrative threads embroider the fabric of her graphic novel.

‘The book is very much my experience blind. And then Dan's blind,’ says Slatter.

Dan’s diary is wrought in honest charcoal, real and earnest. In contrast Slattery’s hallucinations are vivid in colour, drawn in walnut ink, scanned in and overlaid with ochre, sage and inky blues.

It’s not the book she ever wanted to write but the graphic novel form is, she believes, the perfect medium for conveying such an unimaginable horror that at the same time was horribly mundane.

‘It’s a beautiful way to tell the story. With words and pictures there's an alchemy when you do bring them together. It’s a little bit of theatre,’ she says.

It has also been a way of putting many of those demons to bed. To exorcise the images from her mind so that as an artist she can turn to other work.

‘For a long time I sat with death on my shoulder. The bleakness of it I couldn't push away.’

We often talk in platitudes about how overcoming adversity can make us stronger, but that’s simply just not the case for Slattery.

‘People say things to try and make you feel that you should feel lucky for what you have. But I didn't need this to happen. I don't have any more insight. It's taken away an awful lot. A lot of my freedom and independence has gone.’

Still it’s a book she had to create and she does hope that in some small way its publication might help others to recognise the signs of infection earlier.

‘It wasn't going to go away. I didn't want it lingering there in the shadows. It was a thing that needed to get out. Now that I've done this I can think about all the other things I might have done had it not happened.’

 

 

Virus-free. www.avast.com

Yolanta Gawlik, instagram

8 July 2021

What an amazing, beautiful and honest book. It is sometimes difficult to read, emotionally, but so worth reading. It leaves the reader in owe of the bravery of the author and her family.

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Rebecca Foster, Bookish Beck

24 May 2021

In May 2013, Zara Slattery’s life changed forever. What started as a nagging sore throat developed into a potentially deadly infection called necrotising fascitis. She spent 15 days in a medically induced coma and woke up to find that one of her legs had been amputated. As in Orwell and In, colour is used to differentiate different realms. Monochrome sketches in thick crayon illustrate her husband Dan’s diary of the everyday life that kept going while she was in hospital, yet it’s the coma/fantasy pages in vibrant blues, reds and gold that feel more real.

Slattery remembers, or perhaps imagines, being surrounded by nightmarish skulls and menacing animals. She feels accused and guilty, like she has to justify her continued existence. In one moment she’s a puppet; in another she’s in ancient China, her fate being decided for her. Some of the watery landscapes and specific images here happen to echo those in McPhail’s novel: a splash park, a sunken theatre; a statue on a plinth. There’s also a giant that reminded me a lot of one of the monsters in Spirited Away.

Meanwhile, Dan was holding down the fort, completing domestic tasks and reassuring their three children. Relatives came to stay; neighbours brought food, ran errands, and gave him lifts to the hospital. He addresses the diary directly to Zara as a record of the time she spent away from home and acknowledges that he doesn’t know if she’ll come back to them. A final letter from Zara’s nurse reveals how bad off she was, maybe more so than Dan was aware.

This must have been such a distressing time to revisit. In this interview, Slattery talks about the courage it took to read Dan’s diary even years after the fact. I admired how the book’s contrasting drawing styles recreate her locked-in mental state and her family’s weeks of waiting – both parties in limbo, wondering what will come next.

Brighton, where Slattery is based, is a hotspot of the Graphic Medicine movement spearheaded by Ian Williams (author of The Lady Doctor). Regular readers know how much I love health narratives, and with my keenness for graphic novels this series couldn’t be better suited to my interests.

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Jude Cowan Montague

22 May 2021

I recognised so much of my own dream world here – the guilt, the fear – that I could really relate to Zara's experience. But, as she says, it was so intense because of the pain she was suffering. I have never been through an experience like this, but I have been in hospital and once nearly died (acute appendicitis) and recognised the feelings of fantasy in the institution of the hospital, in the process of receiving care.

As a reader, I found the way Zara structured this really satisfying. I could follow the journal simply, with her husband's glum, simple, coping despair detailing each day in a kind of zombie-like state (for want of a more articulate word!) while numbly going through the days. In contrast, Zara is battling demons behaving like a warrior hero in the Matrix (while lying on her hospital bed). The drawings express this journey in a beautiful rhythm which give a sense of comfort with expression that great art gives to those who witness – cathartic. Although one might come to this story, like me, with a kind of gruesome titillation, eager to salaciously look at the vulnerability of our own bodies, taking a ride on this story that happened to Zara, it’s a journey of the mind. And a tremendous yet ordinary love story. I think it's a really beautiful thing.  Well done for making it through, Zara and Dan.

COMA is an amazing book – I loved reading it. What a story. Another brilliant Myriad volume to inspire us all.

Simon Chadwick, Cartoonists Club of Great Britain

17 May 2021

Storytelling is a strange art. Finding the hook that draws in the reader comes in many different forms. And it certainly helps if that hook is an original one. I wasn’t anticipating the story in Coma – I thought it would exclusively be a trippy, Gaimenesque journey through a fantastical world serving as an allegory. There are aspects of this, but the driving force is something different entirely.

Coma is based on the real-life experience of the author. Starting with a sore throat, her health deteriorates until she’s barely able to stand. Doctors at the hospital are initially baffled until, eventually, a deadly bacterial infection is diagnosed. Drastic surgery, intensive care, and a coma follow. She’s barely recognisable as the person she was just days before due to the swelling. It can’t get more serious. 

Throughout Zara’s coma, her mind attempts to rationalise her experience. In her delirium she is confronted by many oddities and confusing scenarios, and this bizarre journey is documented throughout the book. Fascinating as it is to experience her frenzied inner battles, it’s the other story that takes a firm hold of your heart. For in the outside world Zara has a husband and three children. A father, wider family, and friends. And it’s through their eyes that we really get to understand the trauma of the situation.

The intensive care staff encourage Dan, Zara’s husband, to keep a diary. This is for Zara’s benefit, so she can make sense of the days she will lose to the coma. And it’s largely (but not exclusively) this diary that Zara uses later to construct the narrative of the book. Dan’s faith in the NHS, and his initial optimism, wrong-foot him entirely, and by the time the full seriousness of the illness is revealed he becomes increasingly lost in helplessness. Surrounded by routine, necessity, and the kindness of family and strangers he wants for nothing in the care and provision of the children, not to mention emotional support. But, when all’s said and done, there’s simply nothing he can do that can make a difference to his wife’s sickness. That’s a battle she must fight alone.

Because it’s a diary, it’s honest, it’s immediate, and it’s raw. Some things the family does, like shopping trips, enjoying fish and chips, and a birthday party, all feel incongruous. Almost an act of unfaithfulness when a wife and mother fights for her life across town. But what else should they do, and the diary helps to underscore that Zara is far from forgotten or ignored. The distractions are, of course, essential.

I took this book to bed with me to read. It’s quite thick, so I figured two evenings would do it. I read it in one, unable to step away from the heart-wrenching experience.

The following morning my mind keeps churning over aspects of the story. The fragile nature of our health, the brilliance of our NHS, the kindness of neighbours, and the importance of family. It’s a book that shows us what’s really important. Genuinely moving and extremely thought-provoking, Coma is a book everyone should spend some time with.

And if you liked that: Pick up Biscuits (assorted)

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Sarah Gorrell, BBC Radio Sussex

13 May 2021

Your book is just incredible.  Your illustrations really highlight what you went through in a way that the written word wouldn't be able to do.

[There are] stunning illustrations detailing Zara's time in her 15-day coma, I love the insights into domestic life, and the letters from her children, and the really moving letter from the intensive care nurse who looked after her. It’s a stunning book.

Dave's Comics, Instagram

7 May 2021

Zara Slattery fell ill and slipped into a coma. During this time her husband was encouraged to keep a diary. In this extraordinary debut graphic novel Zara splits the narrative between her husband coping at home, alongside the nightmare visions she was experiencing while the doctors fought to keep her alive. A beautifully illustrated and moving portrait of love and fortitude.

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Ian Williams, GP and co-founder Graphic Medicine

10 February 2021

I couldn’t put it down. This is truly terrific, and terrifying. There isn’t really anything else like it. The artwork is stunning. The structure is spot-on, without unnecessary exposition and it begins and ends at just the right points. It is a hallucinatory masterpiece which tells a tale of tenderness and family love, an example of what can happen when something truly horrific happens to someone already very talented and skilled at making images – an incredible work of art, and so important. I hope ICU workers read it – the staff come over well, and the idea of writing a diary for the patient is lovely. Having worked in ICU, I think it is so easy to forget that the inanimate body on the bed may be still have a very active brain.

Bobbie Farsides, Professor of Clinical and Biomedical Ethics, Brighton and Sussex Medical School, University of Sussex

10 February 2021

A coma story, a love story, and the best case I’ve seen for diary writing.  A story of medical misfortune set against the background of everyday life. You find yourself living alongside a family and within a community you recognise, you watch them coping and carrying on. At the same time you hover over their beloved Zara’s bed, drawn into her terrible imaginings, fearful for how she will emerge from this life-changing experience, but grateful for every time someone reports ‘you are still alive’. Prepare to be moved. I certainly was.

Dr Julie Highfield, Intensive Care Society

10 February 2021

What a fantastic book. The interweaving of Zara’s delirium memory alongside her husband’s diary offers insight into the world of the ICU patient and their family. It opens the eyes of both junior and senior healthcare professionals to the realities of patient and family experience, the acute distress, trauma, and confusion. The medium of a graphic novel means the book potentially provides a space for catharsis for former ICU patients, as the pictures of Zara’s journey depict the what patients often struggle to put into words. Relatives may find comfort in the familiarity of the husband’s story, told through diary entries.

Dave's Comics

A stunning piece of work. In this extraordinary debut graphic novel Zara splits the narrative between her husband coping at home, alongside the nightmare visions she was experiencing while the doctors fought to keep her alive. A beautifully illustrated and moving portrait of love and fortitude.

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